Thursday, March 20, 2014

Rye Bread and other Stories

      A long time ago a boy named Bill was raking the oats in a seemingly unending oat field on  his fathers farm in Northern Michigan. He is fourteen years old. He stands, leaning on his rake for the briefest moment, turning to glance and make sure his father does not notice him slacking off. He hears the faint, lonely wail of the two thirty p.m. freight train coming on down that track, every day, right on time.
   . He can see it now. The rumbling wheels , the smoke billowing, heading out, out of this town, out of this place, running the track to far away places with far away names. It is August. The sweat runs down the back of his neck in rivers. The dusty oats will never get done. His mouth is dry and his hands are blistered.. Father and the hired man have their backs to him. The rake drops. He swings his legs over it  and strides across the oat field in an easy lope, the oats bending, then standing back up beneath his feet. He makes a graceful leap into the open box car. The train begins to pick up speed.
       Lying on the warm, hard box car floor, he watches the oat field fade away.. The familiar roads. The familiar towns. His known world fades away. He lets the rhythm of the wheels rock him to sleep.
      On a cold snowy  February day a post card arrives for his mother in that little Michigan town. "Did you get the oats raked?" is what it says. It is mailed from Seattle. A hobo roams where  the trains go, stopping at his will. The country is wide, and it holds a hoboes world. There are snow storms in Texas, did you know? The Pacific is a mighty ocean. It slams against the rocky shores, and swells gentle at the ports where the ships come and go. The western mountains are mighty and steep, even for freight trains. West Virginia has hills and curves and tunnels. In Florida grapefruits and oranges grow on trees.
     When winter comes, you can head for the warmth. if you want to. In summer the rivers are cool and they wash away the grime of the journey. There are forest, too that you could write home about, if you had a pencil and a penny for a stamp. A hobo jungle has comaraderie. They share their last crust with you. Except for the big cities, it is clean and peaceful, this America, your home.

In New England, a young widow with her two children lives on a hillside. She is sweet and quiet talking. One day Bill wanders up from Boston to see some relatives. He works at odd jobs. He visits and tries to swing into a steady life. The years had  gone by, full of adventure, but sometimes at night it got lonely. When they coyotes bark, and the owls talk to each other in the tree tops. Then the nights felt black and the light of the moon wass cold.. The young widow has a friendly smile. The talk comes easy. Bill tells his plan to his cousin Mildred. She boards at the same house as he does. He catches her in the hallway. He swears her to secrecy. "Mildred", he says, "I am going to marry Ellen tomorrow. So will you iron my shirt and mend my pants and not tell a soul?" Well, Mildred did. She would still giggle like the young girl she was on that day, when she tells you about it. She was in her nineties  the last time I heard this story.
It was Bill who taught Ellen to make this bread. He had learned it somewhere in his days of wandering over this great land. He called it depression bread, because it has so few ingredients, and it is so economical to make. I always thought that was why it tastes so good. It has history mixed in it, and adventure. It has laughter and probably a few tears to season it. Every time some one makes it, I wonder..when we have been sleeping the long sleep, and the wind and the snow and the sun have washed our gravestones clean and white...will our descendants have any excellent memories to talk over and pass on? I wonder.. Go forth, and make bread. It feeds the body and warms the soul.

It was the best wedding gift we received, and it has lasted the longest. This recipe for Rye bread. Written in spidery hand writing on lined yellow paper. From Ellen to the iron horse cowboy, because she knew how much he liked to eat it when he was at her house.
Rye Bread
Dissolve 4 tblsp. yeast in a half a cup of warm water and a tblsp. of sugar in a one cup measure.
. Let it rise until it fills the cup.
Add this to 4 cups of warm water in a large bowl.
Add a fairly big handful of salt.
(This will be around one heaping tablespoon.)
(If you don't add the salt, it will not have any flavor.)
Add 2 cups of rye meal
(It is not easy to find rye meal. Graham flour also works, and rye flour, but if you can find the meal, it has much more texture.)
Stir this in.
Add 2 Tablespoons of caraway seed
 Begin adding your white flour, a little at a time until your dough is smooth and elastic.
 I always mix and knead by hand. I love the steady cadence of it, and the rhythmic thump. thump as you roll it around. It is soothing and comforting. I can't say that a bread mixer would make the bread any better or worse. It is definitely better for the bread maker! Wash out your bowl, butter it and put your ball of dough back in the bowl. Cover with a damp towel and let rise until doubled.
Punch the dough down and shape into 4 loaves. Put in greased pans and again rise until doubled.
Originally this bread was just shaped into round loaves and put on a cookie sheet.
Or sometimes it was just baked on the racks of the wood stove with out any pans.
It's all what you  have!
They also sprinkled it with coarse salt before they baked it.
 If you are too health conscious for all that..then just put it in loaf pans and no salt and use your clean modern oven!
350 for about 30 minutes.
simple. Wonderful aroma. Mouth watering taste.
I have made hundreds of loaves of this bread over the years.


  1. Thanks for posting this my friend...yes one of Mel's favorite breads. I made many loaves of this over the years! I will make it again soon!

  2. I love that story, Mom, I now have another bit of my life story I had never heard!

  3. Bread...oh what I wouldn't give for a hot slice of this!!:(

  4. Thanks for nice sharing. You can also find best Cast Iron material at Laxmi Iron & Steel Industry. The main object of LAXMI IRON & STEEL INDUSTRIES is to provide best quality and cost effective Cast Iron. For more information Visit Cast Iron Slab.